In preparation for the Summer Olympics and in conjunction with a trend of promoting British culture, the Victoria & Albert Museum explores the many facets of British contributions to modern design. Using the 1948 London Olympic Gfames as its starting point, this exhibition chronicles the character of British design from it’s traditional beginnings, subversive period, and finally the contemporary excellence in technology and engineering.
The exhibition inhabits three immense galleries and each of these galleries has it’s own distinct character. The first gallery represents the conflict between tradition and modernity, primarily in the 1950s and 1960s. After World War II when Europe was torn to pieces, the efforts of reconstruction created several views on how Britain should proceed. While there was a mentality of maintaining “Britishness” and tradition, many designers demonstrated that the UK can move into modernity without losing its heritage.
One particularly stunning portion of this gallery is devoted to the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral, heavily damaged by bombing. While nothing can replace the magnificence and history of this building, a new construction was made utilizing modern aesthetics. The views from the new structure highlight the ruins of the old cathedral and become a microcosm of the potential of British architecture – the new and the old can exist together, respecting tradition and embracing new trends. A large model of the abstract stained glass windows designed by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens (1958-1959) glow within a somewhat dark corner of the exhibition highlighting (if not somewhat heavy-handedly) the theme of rising from destruction, creating a parallel between Christianity and British identity.
This first gallery is a bit chaotic in the sheer volume of material represented. Beginning with the 1948 “Austerity Games” as the Olympics we called that year to the 1951 Festival of Britain and 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. From these set, historical dates and events, the gallery loses a bit of cohesiveness as it jumps from fashion to product design to jewellery to graphic design. There are examples of domestic life and characteristics of design from the more traditional 1950s to the bold geometry of the 1960s. Despite the confusion in this gallery the juxtaposition between what is perceived more as “high design” like fashion and jewellery is paired alongside more practical everyday objects. This contrast is at first a big shocking (a gorgeous gown worn by the Queen positioned directly next to a full size stoplight), demonstrates that all design has had an impact on contemporary culture, even what is considered quotidian and perhaps banal.Moving next into what is a bit like the rebellious teenage years of British design, the second gallery is devoted to the theme of subversion. Young designers used their fresh outlook to radically change the face of design in the 1960s-1980s. A significant portion of this gallery is devoted to the music industry where the Brits excelled – such acts as the Beatles and David Bowie are unrivalled in success and iconic status. A Ziggy Stardust costume next to album cover designs illustrate how music pervaded all aspects of design and fuelled a new generation of innovation. In terms of gallery design, this second gallery is most successful in a dark, edgy design that dramatically highlights the objects on display and the theme of rebellion.
The last gallery initially appears a bit bland with the pale grey walls and more open-plan layout, but the section, entitled “Innovation and Creativity” explores the transformation of British design, particularly in recent decades. The gallery texts explains that design has made a move “from traditional manufacturing towards innovative financial, retail and creative services.” This transition changes the aesthetics of the products designed, but there remains a quality of “Britishness” that is not easy to describe. This section features a sport yet elegant 1961 Jaguar, household products and appliances, and even a section on video games. The relatively recent acceptance of video games as art or design is here explored as combining a number of fields including art, computing, story-telling, music, and technology. Concluding the exhibition is a section devoted to architecture featuring intricate models of London’s iconic modern landmarks including Lloyd’s of London and the Gherkin. To bring everything full circle, back to the Olympics, a maquette of Zaha Hadid’s aquatic centre for the 2012 games demonstrates the changes in design since 1948.
Fashion remains an important feature throughout each of the exhibition. The floral patterns of Laura Ashley in the first gallery recall English heritage and gardens. In the second gallery a small space recognises the emergence of the boutique culture and the mod styles of Mary Quant, among others. The punk aesthetic as characterized by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren is paired with ornate hats from Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones. Embracing the new technological identity of the UK, Hussein Chayalan’s Video Dress (2007) contains LED lights embedding with hundreds of crystals to create the action of a blooming flower within the “fabric” of the dress.
British Design 1948-2012 explores over half a century of innovation and skill in design. The range of media, ideas, and designers represented is impressive, but create a somewhat overwhelming exhibition. The objects on display span elite/luxury culture through to everyday objects allowing the exhibition to be accessible to everyone.
For a comprehensive introduction to British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age please see Aesthetica’s feature on the exhibition in the February/March issue. We’ve sold out of this issue but you can download a copy of the article here.
British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, 31/03/2012 – 12/08/2012, V&A, South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL. www.vam.ac.uk
British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age Exhibition
Courtesy of V&A Images